October 13th marked the start of a most promising era. The following account records the events that ushered in this newest of ages.

         I write without bias or prejudice: all this stuff is true. That said, if anyone wants to bring in the fact checkers, you can bet I’ll ignore them. It’s a free empire now – or, at any rate, I’m no slave – and I have the right to remain silent! There’s no way I’m going back to the days of Claudius, when there was truth to the old saying that “one ought to be born either a king or a fool.” Claudius was both.

         Should I choose to answer the skeptics, I’ll say whatever lands on my lips. My contemporaries have reached new heights of absurdity: mark my words, they’ll soon be crying “Perjury!” if a historian so much as SNEEZES without first assembling a retinue of sworn witnesses. If you absolutely must know, my informant is Livius Geminius, the traffic warden of the Appian Way. You might recognize the name – he also saw Caligula’s sister Drusilla climb up to the sky. Well, this same man saw Claudius hobble up to heaven, following the path traversed by Deified Augustus and Tiberius Caesar: his civic duty obliges him to witness all celestial comings and goings, whether he likes it or not.

         Livius will talk to you one-on-one, but he won’t answer to the crowd. With good reason, too. Consider what happened the last time he addressed the senate, when he swore he’d seen Drusilla’s heaven-bound ascent: not a single person believed him. That’s what you get these days for good news. Well, Livius decided he’d had enough. He vowed under oath that from then on he would clam up about EVERYTHING he saw, even if he witnessed a murder in the middle of the Forum. I, on the other hand, am perfectly willing to share what he told me, plain and true. I swear it on my life – or better yet, on the life of my source! If anything I say is false, may the gods strike down Livius Geminius!



The Sun drew back his blazing arc of light

and Sleep cocooned the earth in shrouds of mist.

The Moon’s triumphant beams usurped the sky

as puckered Winter plucked the pleasing fruit,

depleting Autumn’s bounty and the vines.

A vintager, too late, plucks the few grapes that remain.


Ah poetry… so elegant, so abstruse. I’ll make things easier for you: it was mid-autumn. The exact minute eludes me (philosophers, I fear, will agree about the meaning of life before two water-clocks display the same time). In any case, it was between noon and one in the afternoon. I can already hear the critics’ rebukes. “You sound like a country bumpkin! Are you going to sully the hour of the century with this prosaic dreck?” Those damned poets are all the same. They refuse to sate their ravenous pens on descriptions of dawn and dusk, but insist on meddling with the middle of the day as well. Fine, have it your way:


The Sun had split the sky in two and shook

his wearied reins, beaming down dwindling light

as slanting shadows whispered night is near.


Claudius began to give up the ghost, but he couldn’t find the exit sign. 




Mercury, who always had a soft spot for Claudius – apparently the god of cunning knows a genius when he sees one – took pity. He pulled aside one of the three Fates and asked, “Are you truly so sadistic as to prolong the agony of this poor wretch? [...] I'm begging you, do what must be done. As Vergil advises,


‘Let him die, and the better man be king.’”


“Butter my butt and call me a biscuit!” Clotho responded. “I was just trying to extend Claudius’ life-thread a teensy weensy bit, so he’d have enough time to grant citizenship to those last few stragglers: he’s promised to give citizenship to the Greeks, Gauls, Spaniards, and Britons. But I hear you loud and clear: the world is not yet ready for total togafication. As you wish: we’ll leave behind some foreigners to breed like rabbits.”





Wordlessly she whirled his ghastly spindle

and snipped his stupid lifespan’s royal thread.

Then Lachesis, crowned with Muses’ laurel,

her tresses prettified by bows and plaits,

drew out from snowy fleece the thread of Nero,

which flashed the gods’ assent in shifting shades.

Her sisters gaze in awe upon her distaff,

she fashions precious ore from worthless wool

and expert fingers ply the well-wrought spindle,

which – finally! – turns out a Golden Age.

Those ever-toiling sisters never weary:

their hands rejoice to spin auspicious yarn,

and spindles start to twist the threads unguided.

Nero’s years outstrip old Tithonus,

he’ll even beat the years of prudent Nestor.

Phoebus starts to sing and strum his lyre: 

the Fates obey the rhythm of his song,

and as he hums the joys of the future,

his tune deflects attention from their slog.

“ENCORE!” they shout, and twirl their fingers faster. 

Phoebus says: “Don’t spare an inch of thread!

Allow this man – his face and voice like mine! – 

to mirror me as well in endless life. 

He’ll offer joyous ages to the weary 

and polish laws long rusty from decay.

He’ll tower like the Morning Star ascending, 

or rather like the Evening star he’ll surge.

And as when Dawn’s dispelled the gloom, the Sun

mounts his steeds and speeds across the sky:

just so will Rome catch sight of Nero’s rise!

His flashing visage gleams with gentle blazes,

his neck aglow with streams of flowing hair.”




         After Claudius released a thunderous fart from his buttocks (he always spoke more readily from that orifice), he delivered his final remarks: “Oh no! I think I just shat all over myself!” Whether he actually uttered these words, I am unable to confirm, but I can ascertain that, as a general rule, he was an expert at shitting all over everything.



Quid actum sit in caelo ante diem III idus Octobris anno novo, initio saeculi felicissimi, volo memoriae tradere. Nihil nec offensae nec gratiae dabitur. Haec ita vera si quis quaesiverit unde sciam, primum, si noluero, non respondebo. Quis coacturus est? Ego scio me liberum factum, ex quo suum diem obiit ille, qui verum proverbium fecerat, aut regem aut fatuum nasci oportere. Si libuerit respondere, dicam quod mihi in buccam venerit. Quis unquam ab historico iuratores exegit? Tamen si necesse fuerit auctorem producere, quaerito ab eo qui Drusillam euntem in caelum vidit: idem Claudium vidisse se dicet iter facientem "non passibus aequis." Velit nolit, necesse est illi omnia videre, quae in caelo aguntur: Appiae viae curator est, qua scis et divum Augustum et Tiberium Caesarem ad deos isse. Hunc si interrogaveris, soli narrabit: coram pluribus nunquam verbum faciet. Nam ex quo in senatu iuravit se Drusillam vidisse caelum ascendentem et illi pro tam bono nuntio nemo credidit, quod viderit, verbis conceptis affirmavit se non indicaturum, etiam si in medio foro hominem occisum vidisset. Ab hoc ego quae tum audivi, certa clara affero, ita illum salvum et felicem habeam.



Iam Phoebus breviore via contraxerat arcum

lucis, et obscuri crescebant tempora somni,

iamque suum victrix augebat Cynthia regnum,

et deformis hiemps gratos carpebat honores

divitis autumni, iussoque senescere Baccho

carpebat raras serus vindemitor uvas.


Puto magis intellegi, si dixero: mensis erat October, dies III idus Octobris. Horam non possum certam tibi dicere, facilius inter philosophos quam inter horologia conveniet, tamen inter sextam et septimam erat. Nimis rustice! <Adeo his> adquiescunt omnes poetae, non contenti ortus et occasus describere ut etiam medium diem inquietent, tu sic transibis horam tam bonam?


Iam medium curru Phoebus diviserat orbem:

et propior nocti fessas quatiebat habenas

obliquo flexam deducens tramite lucem:


Claudius animam agere coepit nec invenire exitum poterat.



Tum Mercurius, qui semper ingenio eius delectatus esset, unam e tribus Parcis seducit et ait: "Quid, femina crudelissima, hominem miserum torqueri pateris? Nec unquam tam diu cruciatus cesset? Annus sexagesimus [et] quartus est, ex quo cum anima luctatur. Quid huic et rei publicae invides? Patere mathematicos aliquando verum dicere, qui illum, ex quo princeps factus est, omnibus annis, omnibus mensibus efferunt. Et tamen non est mirum si errant et horam eius nemo novit; nemo enim unquam illum natum putavit. Fac quod faciendum est:


'Dede neci, melior vacua sine regnet in aula.'"


Sed Clotho "ego mehercules" inquit "pusillum temporis adicere illi volebam, dum hos pauculos, qui supersunt, civitate donaret (constituerat enim omnes Graecos, Gallos, Hispanos, Britannos togatos videre), sed quoniam placet aliquos peregrinos in semen relinqui et tu ita iubes fieri, fiat." Aperit tum capsulam et tres fusos profert: unus erat Augurini, alter Babae, tertius Claudii. "Hos" inquit "tres uno anno exiguis intervallis temporum divisos mori iubebo, nec illum incomitatum dimittam. Non oportet enim eum, qui modo se tot milia hominum sequentia videbat, tot praecedentia, tot circumfusa, subito solum destitui. Contentus erit his interim convictoribus."



Haec ait et turpi convolvens stamina fuso

abrupit stolidae regalia tempora vitae.

At Lachesis redimita comas, ornata capillos,

Pieria crinem lauro frontemque coronans,

candida de niveo subtemina vellere sumit

felici moderanda manu, quae ducta colorem

assumpsere novum. Mirantur pensa sorores:

mutatur vilis pretioso lana metallo,

aurea formoso descendunt saecula filo.

Nec modus est illis, felicia vellera ducunt

et gaudent implere manus, sunt dulcia pensa.

Sponte sua festinat opus nulloque labore

mollia contorto descendunt stamina fuso.

Vincunt Tithoni, vincunt et Nestoris annos.

Phoebus adest cantuque iuvat gaudetque futuris,

et laetus nunc plectra movet, nunc pensa ministrat.

Detinet intentas cantu fallitque laborem.

Dumque nimis citharam fraternaque carmina laudant,

plus solito nevere manus, humanaque fata

laudatum transcendit opus. "Ne demite, Parcae"

Phoebus ait "vincat mortalis tempora vitae

ille, mihi similis vultu similisque decore

nec cantu nec voce minor. Felicia lassis

saecula praestabit legumque silentia rumpet.

Qualis discutiens fugientia Lucifer astra

aut qualis surgit redeuntibus Hesperus astris,

qualis cum primum tenebris Aurora solutis

induxit rubicunda diem, Sol aspicit orbem

lucidus, et primos a carcere concitat axes:

talis Caesar adest, talem iam Roma Neronem

aspiciet. Flagrat nitidus fulgore remisso

vultus, et adfuso cervix formosa capillo."


Haec Apollo. At Lachesis, quae et ipsa homini formosissimo faveret, fecit illud plena manu, et Neroni multos annos de suo donat. Claudium autem iubent omnes


χαίροντας, εὐφημοῦντας ἐκπέμπειν δόμων.


Et ille quidem animam ebulliit, et ex eo desiit vivere videri. Exspiravit autem dum comoedos audit, ut scias me non sine causa illos timere. Ultima vox eius haec inter homines audita est, cum maiorem sonitum emisisset illa parte, qua facilius loquebatur: "vae me, puto, concacavi me." Quod an fecerit, nescio: omnia certe concacavit.

Translator's Note

Something is rotting. You can smell it in the air, fungus and putrefying flesh wafting through your nostrils. A new golden age has dawned. 

For Seneca, the emperor Claudius’ death in 54 CE was cause for celebration. Claudius had exiled Seneca, forcing him to live on the island of Corsica from 41-49 CE. Seneca was, moreover, a tutor and advisor to Nero, Claudius’ successor. Shortly after Claudius’ death, Seneca wrote the Apocolocyntosis, a satire ridiculing Claudius’ post-mortem attempt to ascend into heaven. Apocolocyntosis is a made-up word which literally means “Pumpkinification” or “Gourdification,” invented by analogy with the Greek word for deification, “apotheosis.” No gourds make an appearance within the satire itself, but the title’s implication is clear enough: instead of making his way to heaven, the deceased emperor lingers on earth, decaying like the pumpkin you forgot to throw out after Halloween.

Seneca is a difficult figure to pin down. How do we reconcile the advocate of Stoic constancy and satisfaction in life of the mind with the immensely wealthy advisor of Rome’s most famous megalomaniac?[1] The Apocolocyntosis reveals a particularly unsettling side of its author, who, in the words of Christopher Whitton, “drops the philosopher’s pallium and puts on jester’s bells to frolic before his 16-going-on-17-year-old pupil and master, not to mention the rest of his audience. Where’s the lesson now?” 

The work is variously titled in the primary manuscripts, but is generally agreed to be the text alluded to by the historian Cassius Dio, who wrote in the second century CE that Seneca had composed a work entitled the Apocolocyntosis soon after Claudius died.[2] It is a Menippean satire (a genre named after the 3rd century BCE Greek author Menippus of Gadara), and it “is the only satire of this type to survive in nearly complete form.”[3]Menippean satires typically contained a “profusion of popular proverbs and colloquialisms, quotation of Greek works and phrases, and learned references to Greek and Roman literature and mythology,” and they often shared themes such as trips to heaven, divine councils, and descents into the underworld.[4]The Apocolocyntosis’ audience has been widely debated. Many scholars restrict the audience to the imperial court, but others contend that it was recited at the Saturnalia, a festival held every December in honor of the god Saturn. The sheer quality of the work (its sharp wit, word-play, and tight structure) suggests that it was anything but an ephemeral, one-off recitation for a small circle of friends.[5]

Characteristic features of the Apocolocyntosis include a constant fluctuation between formal language (extending even to legal jargon) and colloquialism, as well as aggressive taunts ridiculing Claudius’ limp and stutter. If there is one thing I want this translation to convey, it is the fun-house warp of Seneca’s language. The Apocolocyntosis is many things, but it is not predictable. You can begin a sentence thinking its tone suits a historical work or a political treatise, only to find yourself in the midst of a lampoon that not only levels insults at the Roman imperial family, but has something – not too complimentary – to say about your own times as well.

Seneca uses this combination of registers to yank Claudius down to earth. Thus, in Section 7, he transforms the “god’s blow” of tragedy, a conventional punishment for mortal hubris, into the made-up phrase “fool’s blow” (μωροῦ πληγήν). The humor induced by Seneca’s shifting register is often of a particularly nasty sort, hinging on the ridicule of a deceased man’s presumed physical and mental disabilities. The topsy-turvy quality of Seneca’s language matches the nature of his humor – the kind that makes you laugh, and then, upon recognizing the source of your laughter, question your own moral compass. My translation is far from literal (I saw no reason to recreate P.T. Eden’s accurate 1984 facing translation), and I have taken liberties with syntax and diction where doing so has allowed me to convey the dynamism of Seneca’s Latin. I have translated from Paul Roth’s Latin text and consulted P.T. Eden’s Cambridge Green and Yellow edition. In the selections excerpted below, brackets signal where I have omitted material present in the complete translation.

If, over the course of reading this translation, you have giggled, then recoiled in disgust at the words on the page, only to pause and reassess the strength of your own moral principles, I have done my job. Welcome to the funhouse.


[1] Wilson (2014): 3-6 and passim.

[2] Eden (1984): 1.

[3] Roth (1988): 1.

[4] Roth (1988): 2. Seneca especially draws on the earlier work of the Roman author Lucilius (who died in 102/101 BCE), whose first book for verse satires was entitled Concilium deorum (“Council of the gods”) (Eden [1984]: 16-17).

[5] Whitton (2013): 156. He also observes echoes “in Neronian, Flavian, and Trajanic literature and beyond” and concludes that the work “need not be directed minutely at Nero, or even at his immediate circle” (156-7).

Elizabeth Raab


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